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STEVE LOPEZ / POINTS WEST

Now Comes the Heavy Lifting

Steve Lopez

October 23, 2005

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"I am going to take on the challenge."

That's Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa talking about skid row.

He went there twice last week and walked the streets, eyes wide open. So he knows he's understating things when he calls it a challenge.

As a five-part Times series documented -- and the mayor saw for himself -- there's a human catastrophe unfolding a few blocks from City Hall, in a city of unfathomable wealth.

"It's the worst situation in America," says Police Chief William J. Bratton, a veteran of urban nightmares in Boston and New York City. "And we should be ashamed."

City Council members Jan Perry and Bill Rosendahl spoke up too on Friday, putting out a "call for action" on homelessness across the city, from Venice to North Hollywood.

It's nice to hear that these folks are on the case, because it's going to take all of their best efforts -- and more -- to make a difference. We've all heard lots of promises over the years, and if there had been results, I wouldn't have spent the week on skid row, where I watched a junkie take her last breaths a few steps from where drug peddlers count stacks of cash.

And the mayor didn't get a sanitized version. I watched as a man injected heroin and another smoked crack in his honor's presence.

Skid row, in fact, is described by some as a bigger mess than ever. Like Villaraigosa, I'd been there before on many occasions, but I'd never gotten to know it the way I have this year, and it all began with a chance encounter.

The person who opened my eyes to the calamity was Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, a onetime aspiring musician whose mental illness has robbed him of pretty much everything but his soul and his love of music.

Once you're invested in someone, particularly someone crippled by a devastating disease, you can't accept that a civil society has no qualms about leaving him out there with the rats. Nathaniel and too many others just like him.

No official count is available, but it's safe to say thousands sleep on skid row. Some readers have challenged my reference to 10,000 street dwellers, but we know that roughly 3,000 are in shelters, with another several thousand in and out of single-room occupancy hotels and flophouses. Councilwoman Perry says she's certain that 5,000 to 8,000 more are camped between 1st and 9th, Broadway and Alameda, with additional hordes living on the periphery.

It's time to get past the paralysis and do something, the mayor said in volunteering to lead the way.

It's going to take some real leadership. I've come around to the conclusion that laws intended to protect the rights of Nathaniel and other mentally ill people are well-intended but inhumane.

Nathaniel is too sick to know he's sick, so he resists treatment that might give him a shot at a better life, and I now understand the frustration of hundreds of families that have told me in agonizing detail of similar dilemmas.

On that one, the mayor says he's on board. He told me he plans to campaign for the legal authority to involuntarily commit people in obvious need of help.

It's a treacherous political and legal minefield, and the mayor's appointment of a fellow ACLU member to his commission on homelessness last week appears to put him in conflict with his vow. But he insists the pendulum has swung too far toward a hands-off approach. Let's be humane and respectful of civil liberties, he says, but "we need to commit people who are obviously sick."

Another priority, he says, is to ensure that money available beginning in January from Proposition 63 -- the 1% surcharge on taxable income of more than $1 million to fund programs for the mentally ill -- goes into the most creative kinds of outreach and housing programs. Prop. 63 is a chance for Los Angeles and all of California to make amends for the travesty in which mental hospitals were shut down without enough new community clinics, thereby sentencing helpless patients to the squalor of the streets.

Of course you can't change skid row without addressing all the feeder problems. Thousands of people earn rock-bottom wages in a region where real estate is obscenely priced and low-income housing is scarce.

Thousands have no health insurance, and their children go to schools with high dropout rates.

If you've got money and become addicted or mentally ill, you've got a chance at quality care. But if you're scraping to get by and become addicted or mentally ill, it can be a ticket to skid row.

"The real issue is that people don't have enough money," says Paul Tepper of skid row's Weingart Center. "It would be cheaper to help someone as they're falling off the edge rather than wait until they've plummeted onto skid row."

If we're going to start waving magic wands, I'd like to shake one at the disastrous clustering of so many services in one place, as has happened on skid row. It's created a human corral. Anyone who wants help has to go through hell to get it.

To give you an example, Nathaniel has no addiction problem and in fact is disgusted by the drug trade. But to get to Lamp, an agency for the mentally ill homeless, he has to walk the street one prostitute called " 'Escape From New York,' without Kurt Russell."

At one end is a set of Porta Pottis used as a brothel. As he makes his way down the street, Nathaniel passes the drug-ravaged masses, some of whom you have to look at twice to see if they're breathing. Fights break out, dealers talk business.

At the other corner are fleets of wheelchairs carrying the victims of forgotten wars, and just across that block are the paramedics who picked up the dying junkie.

Chief Bratton assures me the police are on the case. I hope so, because although they can't solve the social problems that created that scene, they can at least make sure a city street one block from a police station isn't turned into a brazen, lawless caldron of drug dealing and prostitution.

Come on, a guy shot up in front of the mayor, for god's sake. It's entirely out of control, and a threat to the children who get dragged onto these streets.

As for the mental illness aspect of the problem, when new services become available under Prop. 63, they need to be scattered precisely where you and the guy down the street don't want them to be.

In your neighborhood.

This would alleviate the kind of massive encampments you see now on skid row -- where people get seduced by the very demons they go there to escape.

Sometimes I wonder how Nathaniel has survived as long as he has, though I know it's partly because of the good-hearted people who do brave work on skid row watching out for the likes of him.

If despite such efforts Nathaniel doesn't get out and find a better life, I'd like to think it's possible for him to one day at least have a safer and more humane environment.

"I mean, that almost looked like Bombay or something, except with more violence," Villaraigosa says of his two trips to skid row last week.

"There is no place [in the city] where the chaos and the degradation are as pronounced. You see a complete breakdown of society."

Yes, and it's utterly unacceptable.

Now fix it.

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Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at www.latimes.com/lopez.